In this time of contagion, it’s all about conversion

Strict border controls, restrictive movement orders and working from home have significantly curtailed international student recruitment activity for the foreseeable future. While the restrictions in air travel may be good for the environment, higher education institutions are grasping desperately for alternative marketing options like online recruitment fairs, overseas advertising, video interviews, virtual tours etc.

But the rush to embrace new and largely untested remote recruitment activity may be misguided. It’s in the nature of sales and marketing teams to enjoy the thrill of the new, but while the feel-good factor of doing something innovative while cooped up in the back bedroom is obvious, the return on investment may not be.

While marketing effort should be redeployed and there may be room for some experiments, the priority is making sure that the basics and proven methodologies are being implemented with ruthless focus.

Focus on the home(page)

With us all being told to “stay at home”, this crisis is a moment for institutions to put their house in order. When I say house, I mean website and more specifically their home page. It is quite startling to see how many universities have not updated their web page with anything other than a banner pointing to coronavirus updates.

From a customer point of view the website is not a repository for information, it is a window to the institution’s soul. The lack of synchronicity between a ‘business as usual’ top page and a jarring ‘coronavirus danger’ message tacked onto it is a reflection of muddled thinking and a lack of empathy with the user. A university website is the way potential students, staff and society first experience an institution and that first impression is important – even more so in times of crisis.

Everyone in the world knows that coronavirus is a global problem and that it will change everything. Giving some thought to how the university’s front page acknowledges the situation and begins to build confidence, trust and rapport with students is critical.

In films about the old days of print media the call to ‘hold the front page’ reminds us how antiquated the process was, but now we need to take advantage of technology to ‘change the front page’ to reflect new circumstances.

Smart institutions should be updating their front page at least once a week. Feature students who are isolated and far from home but appreciate the university’s efforts, lecturers who are going the extra five miles to deliver online courses and the research that the university is devoting to help solve the problems. Put it on the front page right now – because that’s what proves your worth as a centre for research and learning.

In a world where risk has been elevated, students will also want to understand what the return on their investment will be and how they can be sure it is worth it. There are usually far too many clicks and frustrations trying to access details on tuition fees and living costs within most university websites. Make those costs easy to find, then use it as the perfect platform to explain the return on investment that a student gets for choosing your institution.

Anyone who has sat at a stand at an international education exhibition will tell you the first question asked is generally about cost of study but that, particularly in Asia, the second questions are generally around employability. Institutions should make it easy for potential students to find the chances of employment post-study, with robust graduate outcomes metrics, ideally segmented by country, course of study etc.

Focus on conversion

The United Kingdom has seen an unprecedented increase in applications this year, widely thought to be due to the reinstatement of post-study work visas. Applications from China were up over 30%, India 90% and, except for Malaysia, most international applications have increased worldwide. Rather than speculating on additional, unproven remote recruitment activity, universities would be far better focusing on converting the applications they already have.

Here are some pointers on the ‘how’:

Organise applications by course, country of origin and create customised marketing to different students. These should be delivered in a variety of media, email, messaging, personal contact from admissions staff and existing students or alumni.

Messaging should recognise that the reason most students go to university is to get a good job. Don’t put the university’s ego before the students’ needs. Initial messaging should be focused on employability, including top employment destinations both in the country of study and in students’ home countries as well as average salaries and career progression. This should be followed with messaging regarding reputation, rankings and student experience.

Personal contact, buddy systems and mentoring from alumni is a great way of not only engaging existing members of the community stuck at home but is also the most meaningful to potential students. Direct contact with alumni is even better if it demonstrates the impact the university experience has had on their career success.

Agents are crucial to international student recruitment and many are suffering at the present time, seeing their livelihood disappear while the world is locked down. Working closely with the agent network and providing them with robust employability metrics to help them convert students is doubly important.

Taster courses could become a new and effective marketing or conversion tool and the potential to ‘try before you buy’ can be powerful. Over the past few weeks universities have been engaged with delivering more content online. It is time to take the best of these courses and translate them into ‘tasters’ for students, particularly if it means they can start to gain credits towards their degree.

Plan for seamless delivery by thinking strategically about price differentials between delivery modes and how students might combine initial study online with progression to on-campus. If, as many expect, autumn recruitment is significantly impacted by the present crisis this may be the only realistic option for institutions to convert existing applications and protect future international student revenue.

Plan to support existing and future students into further study and-or the world of work in a significantly altered environment. Tribal data on UK higher education indicates that, while £600 (US$750) is spent per student on marketing activity, just £60 is spent on careers advice and guidance. In a 2019 report of Universities UK International, just 2% of international students said their university careers service “helped them find a job”. Neither figure does justice to the importance that employability and career prospects will play post-coronavirus.

Louise Nicol is director of the Asia Careers Group.